Polish-Soviet summit: the real issue is food

Looming over this week's meeting between Poland's top leaders and their Kremlin counterparts will be both the grave food shortages here and mounting public protests over them.

The ostensible purpose of the talks is to discuss the recent extraordinary congress of the Polish Communist Party.

But the real issue is the need to forestall any further strike threat or demonstration that could again threaten the stability of the country. In recent days public protests have taken a disquieting turn not so much because of the shortages themselves as the near-breakdown in the rationing system.

It is not yet known whether Polish party chief Stanislaw Kania and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, his prime minister and defense minister, will visit President Leonid Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders in Moscow or in the Crimea, where Mr. Brezhnev has a holiday home.

Whatever the venue, it may be assumed the Polish leaders will aske the Russians for immediate help to tide them through this new emergency.

And they may get it. The Russians are well aware of the possible "incalculable consequences" the Polish party and government have been warning their people about, should the present food protests get out of hand.

Most Poles have been concerned about this since the first "hunger march" in the town of Kutno last month. Similar but larger demonstrations have followed in many parts of the country.

Last week several hundred workers from a big Warsaw plant march to parliament , which was then in session, to present a protest and an appeal for urgent government action to reduce the rising threat of even more hunger from lack of meat and other basic foodstuffs.

In addition to its warnings about the dangers of spreading protests, the government has invited all the unions -- Solidarity and the so-called branch unions, remnants of the former official labor organization -- to emergency talks here August 3.

At time of writing, Solidarity seemed likely to take part. Nevertheless it has declared itself ready to respond to demands made by some militant sections of the union for strike action if suppliers are not quickly improved.

Al the demonstrations thus far have been peaceful and orderly, with the marchers themselves keeping them that way. But danger lies in the very fact that workers and their families are coming onto the streets to protest.

One of the most telling elements in the triumph of last summers' Baltic strikes was their descipline. The strikers stayed within the shipyards, keeping the gates closed to all outsiders except the people who brought in food. They rejected any proposals by extreme militants or persuasion by provocateurs designed to take them onto the streets, where conflict with the police could easily have been sparked.

Both the Solidarity leaders and the government are aware that the present food demonstrations might easily produce some such result, no matter how disciplined the marchers are and no matter how hard the police try to stay in the background.

General Jaruzelski's decision to add three of his Army colleagues to his Cabinet at this stage (see story below) is significant on two counts:

1. It suggests that much more resolute action may be expected in an attempt to remove the all-too-evident inefficiencies of the distribution and rationing system. There is also likely to be a crackdown on inequalities, speculators, and waste.

There are too many reports of supplies purchased abroad being left at the ports or other points of arrival for some of them not to be true. Perhaps only a military-style operation can get things moving faster and more effectively all around. Solidarity has demanded that the unions be given a watch- dog role to see that they do.

2. The rejigged Cabinet also suggests that General Jaruzelski intends to take a much firmer political line -- standing up to any major strike threat or public demonstration of a magnitude or character that could threaten a national disaster.

The Russians will be looking for firm reassurance on this point. They wil certainly demand it before they come across with further support either in the immediate situation, or longer-term, for the requests Poland made through the East- bloc trading community COMECON some time ago for assistance in finishing and utilizing some of the excessive industrial capacity created in Poland's profligate 1970s.

The government has little mor than two months in which to secure some small measure of protection against the added hardships even a mild winter will bring.

Neither it nor the unions can afford a confrontation. Some immediate aid from outside -- perhaps even a kind of "airlift" from both East and West -- is imperative. But it would have to be matched by a nationwide effort by Poles themselves, as both East and West have made clear.

There is a certain tension in the air, but nothing at the moment is like that of earlier crises. The average Pole is expecting the government to galvanize its efforts to improve supplies and at least ensure that ration cards are honored.

But, at the same time, the regime is looking to Solidarity to lead the effort to improve production that alone can start to ease this troubled nation's problems.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.